Charles G. Harper

Summer Days in Shakespeare Land

Published by Good Press, 2019
EAN 4057664576194

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Table of Contents

By “Shakespeare Land,” as used in these pages, Stratford-on-Avon and the country within a radius of from twelve to twenty miles are meant; comprising parts of Warwickshire and Gloucestershire, and some portions of Worcestershire which are mentioned by Shakespeare, or must have been familiar to him. So many thousands annually visit Stratford-on-Avon that the town, and in some lesser degree the surrounding country, are thought to be hackneyed and spoilt for the more intellectual and leisured visitor; but that is very far from being the case. Apart from such acknowledged centres of Shakespearean interest as the Birthplace at Stratford-on-Avon, the parish church, and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at Shottery; and excepting such great show-places as Kenilworth and Warwick castles, Shakespeare Land is by no means overrun, and is in every way charming and satisfying. Stratford town itself, the very centre of interest, is unspoiled; and the enterprise of the majority of Shakespearean pilgrims is of such a poor quality, and their intellectual requirements as a rule so soon satisfied, that the real beauties of the Warwickshire villages and the towns and villages of the Cotswolds are to them a sealed hook. Except these byways be explored, such an essential side of Shakespeare as that I have touched upon in the chapter “Shakespeare the Countryman” will be little understood.

It is thus entirely a mistaken idea to think the Shakespeare Country overdone. On the contrary, it is much less known than it ought to be, and would be, were it in any other land than our own. And Stratford itself has not done so much as might have been expected in exploiting possible Shakespearean interest. Ancient house-fronts that the poet must have known still await the removal of the plaster which for two centuries or more has covered them; and the Corporation archives have not yet been thoroughly explored.

Incidentally these pages may serve to expose some of the Baconian heresies. If there be many whose judgment is overborne by the tub-thumping of the Baconians, let them turn to some of the extravagances of Donnelly and others mentioned here, and then note the many local allusions which Shakespeare and none other could have written.

The Bacon controversy, which since 1857 has offered considerable employment for speculative minds, and is still in progress, is now responsible for some six hundred books and pamphlets, monuments of perverted ingenuity and industrious research misapplied; of evidence misunderstood, and of judgment biased by a clearly proclaimed intention to place Bacon where Shakespeare stands. These exceedingly well-read gentlemen, profited in strange concealments, have produced a deal of skimble-skamble stuff that galls our good humours. The veriest antics, they at first amuse us, but in a longer acquaintance they are, as Hotspur says of Glendower, “as tedious as a tired horse, a railing wife; Worse than a smoky house.”

This is no place to fully enter the discussion, but we may here note the opinion of Harvey, the great contemporary man of science, on Bacon, the amateur of science. “My Lord Chancellor,” he said, “writes about Science like a Lord Chancellor.” Any one who reads Bacon’s poetry will notice that the poets might have applied the same taunt to his lines.

Yet they tell us now, these strange folk, eager for a little cheap notoriety, not only that “Bacon wrote the Greene, Marlowe, and Shakespeare plays,” but that his is the pen that gives the Authorised Version of the Bible its literary grace. Well, well. They say the owl was a baker’s daughter; a document in madness.

Charles G. Harper.

Ealing, August 24, 1912.


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The Beginnings of Stratford-on-Avon.

Ninety-five miles from the City of London, in the southern part of Warwickshire, and on the left, or northern bank of the Avon, stands a famous town. Not a town famed in ancient history, nor remarkable in warlike story, nor great in affairs of commerce. It was never a strong place, with menacing castle or defensive town walls with gates closed at night. It stood upon a branch road, in a thinly-peopled forest-district, and in every age the wars and tumults and great social and political movements which constitute what is called “history” have passed it by.

Such is, and has been from the beginning, the town of Stratford-on-Avon, whose very name, although now charged with a special significance as the birthplace of Shakespeare, takes little hold upon the imagination when we omit the distinguishing “on Avon.” For there are other Stratfords to be found upon the map of England, as necessarily there must be when we consider the origin of the name, which means merely the ford where the “street”—generally a paved Roman road—crossed a river. And as fords of this kind must have been very numerous along the ancient roads of this country before bridges were built, we can only be astonished that there are not more Stratfords than the five or six that are found in the gazetteers.

The Roman road that came this way was a vicinal route from the Watling Street where Birmingham now stands, through Henley-in-Arden and Alcester, the Roman station of Alauna. Passing over the ford of the Avon, it went to London by way of Ettington, Sunrising Hill, and Banbury. Other Roman roads, the Fosse Way and Ryknield Street, remodelled on the lines of ancient British track-ways, passed east and west of Stratford at an equal distance of six miles.

All the surrounding district north of the Avon was woodland, the great Forest of Arden; and to the south of the river stretched a more low-lying country as far as the foot of the Cotswold Hills, much less thickly wooded. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when the Forest of Arden was greatly diminished, these districts owned two distinctive names: the forest being called “the Wooland,” and the southward pasture-lands “the Feldon.”

The travellers who came this way in early Saxon times, and perhaps even later, came to close grips with the true inwardness of things. They looked death often in the face as they went the lonely road. The wild things in the forest menaced them, floods obscured the fords, lawless men no less fierce than the animals which roamed the tangled brakes lurked and slew. “Now am I in Arden,” the wayfarer might have said, anticipating Touchstone, “the more fool I; when I was at home I was in a better place; but travellers must be content.”

No town or village then existed upon the banks of Avon, and the first mention of Stratford occurs in A.D. 691, when a monastery situated here is named. It was an obscure house, but with extensive and valuable lands which Bishops of Worcester hungered for and finally obtained. The site of this monastery was scarcely that of the existing town of Stratford, but was where the present parish church stands, in what is known as “Old Stratford,” which is on the extreme southerly limit of the town. It was thus situated at some little distance from the ford, which was of course exactly where the Clopton Bridge now crosses the river. At that ford there would probably even then have been a hermit, as there was later, charged with the due guidance of travellers, and in receipt of offerings, but of him we know nothing, and next to nothing of the monastery.

The Bishops of Worcester, having thus early obtained a grant of the monastery and its lands, became lords of the manor and so remained for centuries, wielding in their spiritual and manorial functions a very complete authority over the town which gradually arose here. To resist in any way the Church’s anointed in matters spiritual or temporal would have been to kick most foolishly against the pricks, for in his one autocratic capacity he could blast your worldly prospects, and in the other he could (or it was confidently believed he could) damn you to all eternity. Thus it may well be supposed that those Right Reverend were more feared than loved.

It was an agricultural and cattle-raising community that first arose here. “Rother Street” still by its name alludes to the olden passage of the cattle, for “rother” is the good Anglo-Saxon word “hroether,” for cattle. The word was known to Shakespeare, who wrote, “The pasture lards the rother’s sides.”

In 1216 the then Bishop of Worcester obtained a charter for a fair, the first of four obtained between that date and 1271. The fairs attracted business, and about 1290 the first market was founded. The town had begun to grow, slowly, it is true, but substantially. At this period also that Guild arose which was originally a religious and charitable fraternity, but eventually developed into surprising issues, founding a grammar-school and becoming a tradesmen’s society, whence the incorporation of the town in 1553, and the establishment of a town council derived. Camden, writing about this time, was able to describe it as “proper little mercat towne.”

In that era which witnessed the incorporation of the town of Stratford-on-Avon and the birth of Shakespeare the population was some 2000. It is now about 8300; a very moderate increase in three hundred and fifty years, and much below the average rate for towns, by which Stratford might now have had a population of about 16,000.

The incorporation of this little town in the reign of Edward the Sixth was a great event locally. It included the restitution to the people of the place of the buildings and the property of the Guild of Holy Cross which had been confiscated in 1547, when also the inhabitants had been relieved from the yoke of the Bishops of Worcester, whose manor had been taken away from them. It is true that the manorial rights had not been abolished and that the property and its various ancient privileges had only been transferred to other owners, but it was something to the good that the Church no longer possessed these things. These were not arbitrary changes, the whim of this monarch or that, Henry the Eighth and Edward the Sixth did only what others in their place would and must have done. They were certainly sovereigns with convictions of their own, but their attitude of mind was but the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, and they did not so much originate it as be swayed by it. Those statesmen who have been held meanly subservient to them were, after all, men of like convictions. They saw the old order to be outworn and existing institutions ripe for change. It was the age of the Renascence. Everywhere was the new spirit, which was remodelling thought as well as material things. It was the age, above all things, of the new learning. These feelings led the advisers of the young king, Edward the Sixth, to counsel the restitution to the town of the property of the Guild dissolved only six years earlier, with the important provision that the grammar-school was to be re-established and maintained out of its revenues. To this provision we distinctly owe the dramatist, William Shakespeare, who was born at the very time when the educational advantages thus secured to the children of the townsfolk had settled down into smoothly working order. Education cannot produce a Shakespeare, it cannot create genius, but it can give genius that chance in early elementary training without which even the most adaptive minds lose their direction.

The ancient buildings of the Guild, which after its long career as a kind of lay brotherhood for what modern people would style “social service,” had attained an unlooked-for development as the town authority, thus provided Stratford with its Grammar School and its first town-hall. In those timbered rooms the scholars received their education, and for eighty years, until 1633, when the first hall built especially for the corporation was opened, the aldermen and councillors met there. Among them was John Shakespeare.


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The Shakespeares—John Shakespeare, Glover, Wool-merchant—Birth of William Shakespeare—Rise and Decline of John Shakespeare—Early Marriage of William.

A MODERN man who now chanced to own the name of “Shakespeare” would feel proud, even of that fortuitous and remote association with the greatest figure in English literature. He might even try to live up to it, although the probabilities are that he would quite early forgo the attempt and become a backslider to commonplace. But available records tell us no good of the earliest bearers of the name. The first Shakespeare of whom we have any notice was a John of that name. He was hanged in 1248, for robbery. It is a very long time ago since this malefactor suffered, and perhaps he was one of those very many unfortunate persons who have been in all ages wrongfully convicted. But the name was not in olden times a respectable one. It signified originally one who wielded a spear; not a chivalric and romantic knight warring with the infidel in Palestine, or jousting to uphold the claims to beauty of his chosen lady, but a common soldier, a rough man-at-arms; one who was in great request in his country’s wars, but was accounted an undesirable when the piping times of peace were come again and every man desired nothing better than to sit beneath his own vine and fig-tree. We have record of a certain Shakespeare who grew so weary of the name that he changed it for “Saunders.” But Time was presently to bring revenge, when William Shakespeare, afterwards to become a poet and dramatist of unapproachable excellence, was born, to make the choice of that recreant bearer of the name look ridiculous.

One Shakespeare before the dramatist’s time had reached not only respectability but some kind of local eminence. This was Isabel Shakespeare, who became Prioress of the Priory of Baddesley Clinton, near Knowle. Baddesley Clinton is in the ancient and far-spreading Forest of Arden, and near it is the village of Rowington, where there still remains the very picturesque fifteenth-century mansion called Shakespeare Hall, which is said to have been in the dramatist’s time the residence of a Thomas Shakespeare, an uncle. But William Shakespeare’s genealogy has not been convincingly taken back beyond his grandfather Richard (whose very Christian name is only traditional), who is stated to have been a farmer at Snitterfield, three miles from Stratford-on-Avon.

Warwickshire was, in fact, extremely rich in Shakespeares, many of them no relatives of the dramatist’s family. They grew in every hedgerow, and very many of them owned the Christian name of William, but they spelled their patronymic in an amazing number of ways. It is said to be capable of four thousand variations. We will forbear the most of these. “Shaxpeare” is the commonest form. The marriage-bond for William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway spells his name “Shagspere,” and the dramatist himself spells it in two different ways in the three signatures on his will, which forms to the Baconians conclusive proof of the two following contradictory propositions (1) that he did not know how to spell his own name, and (2) that, the spelling being different, the so-called signatures were written by a law-clerk! As a matter of fact, the spelling of one’s name was in those times a matter of taste and fancy, which constantly varied. Sir Walter Raleigh, contemporary with Shakespeare, was a scholar whom no one will declare an illiterate, yet he wrote his own name, with a fine disregard of consistency and of what future generations might say, “Rawley,” “Ralegh,” “Rawleighe” and “Rauleygh.”

In any case, the “law-clerk” theory will hardly do. A law-clerk who wrote such a shocking bad hand as the six signatures of Shakespeare display could not have earned his living with lawyers and conveyancers. They are signatures, nearly all of them, which might confidently be taken to a chemist, to be “made up,” but exactly how he would read the “prescription” must be left to the imagination.

Sure and certain foothold upon genealogical fact is only reached with William Shakespeare’s father, who established himself at Stratford-on-Avon about 1551, when he seems to have been twenty-one years of age. He was described at various times as a fell-monger and glover, a woolstapler, a butcher and a dealer in hay and corn. Probably, as a son of the farmer at Snitterfield, he was interested in most of these trades. His home and place of business in the town was in Henley Street, then, as now, one of the meaner streets of the place. Its name derives from this forming the way out of Stratford to the town of Henley-in-Arden.

The very first thing we have recorded of John Shakespeare at Stratford is his being fined twelve pence for having a muck-heap in front of his door. Twelve pence in that day was equal to about eight shillings and sixpence of our own times; and thus, when we consider the then notoriously dirty and insanitary condition of Stratford, endured with fortitude, if not with cheerfulness by the burgesses, we are forced to the conclusion that Mr. John Shakespeare’s muck-heap must have been a super muck-heap, an extremely large and offensive specimen, that made the gorge of even the least squeamish of his fellow-townsmen rise. Two other tradesmen were fined at the same time, and in 1558 he was, in company with four others (among whom was the chief alderman, Francis Burbage) fined in the smaller sum of fourpence for not keeping his gutter clean.

By 1556, however, he would seem to have been prospering, for in that year he purchased two copyhold tenements, one in Henley Street, next the house and shop now known as “the birthplace” which he was already occupying; the other in Greenhill Street. Next year he married Mary Arden, of Wilmcote, three miles from Stratford, daughter of Robert Arden, yeoman farmer of that place, said on insufficient evidence to have been kin to the ancient knightly family of Arden. She had become, on her father’s death in December 1556, owner of landed property called Asbies, at Wilmcote, and some like interests at Snitterfield, in common with her brothers and sisters. She was thus, in a small way, an heiress. Wilmcote being then merely a hamlet in the parish of Aston Cantlow, they were married at the church of that place.

John Shakespeare was now a rising tradesman, and in this same auspicious year became a member of the town council, a body then newly established, upon the granting of a charter of incorporation in 1553.

On September 15th, 1558 his daughter Joan was baptized. She died an infant. In 1565, after serving various municipal offices, he became an alderman. Meanwhile, at the close of November 1562, a daughter, Margaret, was born, who died the next year; and in 1564, on April 26th, his son William was baptized. The date of the poet’s birth is traditionally St. George’s Day, April 23rd; now, with the alteration in the calendar, identical with May 5th.

In that year the town was scourged by a terrible visitation of the plague, and John Shakespeare is recorded, among others, as a contributor to funds for the poor who suffered by it. On August 30th he paid twelve pence; on September 6th, sixpence; on the 27th of the same month another sixpence; and on October 20th eightpence; about twenty-two shillings of our money. It is only by tradition—but that a very old one—that William Shakespeare was born at “the birthplace” in Henley Street; but there is no reasonable excuse for doubting it, unless we like to think that he was born at the picturesque old house in the village of Clifford Chambers, which afterwards became the vicarage and is now a farmhouse. A John Shakespeare was at that time living there, two miles only from Stratford, and it has been suggested that he is identical with the father of William, and that in this plague year he took the precaution of removing his wife out of danger.

In 1566 we find a link between the Shakespeares and the Hathaways in John. Shakespeare standing surety for Richard Hathaway; and in the same year his son Gilbert was born; another Joan being born in 1569. In 1568 and 1571 he attained the highest municipal offices, being elected high-bailiff and senior alderman, and thus, as chief magistrate, is found described in local documents as “Mr.” Shakespeare. In 1571 also his daughter Anne, who died in 1579, was born; and in 1573 a son, Richard. In 1575 he purchased the freehold of “the birthplace” from one Edmund Hall, for £40.

Early in 1578 the first note of ill-fortune is sounded in the career of John Shakespeare. Some financial disaster had befallen him. In January, when the town council had decided to provide weapons for two billmen, a body of pikemen, and one archer, and assessed the aldermen for six shillings and eightpence each and the burgesses at half that amount, two of the aldermen were excused the full pay. One, Mr. Plumley, was charged five shillings, and Mr. Shakespeare was to pay only three and fourpence. The following year he defaulted in an assessment for the same amount. Meanwhile, he had been obliged to mortgage Asbies, which had come to him with his wife, and to sell the interests at Snitterfield. The Shakespeares, although they in after years again grew prosperous, never recovered Asbies.

No one knows what caused these straitened circumstances. Possibly it was some disastrous speculation in corn. In the midst of this trouble, his seven-year-old daughter, Anne, died, and another son, Edmund, was horn, 1580. He ceased to attend meetings of the town council, and his son William entered into an improvident marriage.


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Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s bride—The hasty marriage—Shakespeare’s wild young days—He leaves for London—Grendon Underwood.

William Shakespeare was but eighteen and a half years of age when he married. Legally, he was an “infant.” His wife was by almost eight years his senior, but if we agree with Bacon’s saying, that a man finds himself ten years older the day after his marriage, the disparity became at once more than rectified. She was one Anne, or Agnes, Hathaway; her father, Richard, being a farmer of Shottery. The Hathaways were numerous in this district, there being at that time no fewer than three families of the name in Shottery and others in Stratford. Anne had no fewer than eight brothers and sisters, all of whom, except two, are mentioned in their father’s will. Richard, who describes himself in his will as “husbandman,” executed that document on September 1st, 1581, and died probably in the June following, for his will was proved in London on July 9th, 1582. Storms of rival theories have raged around the mystery surrounding this marriage, of which the register does not exist. It is claimed that Shakespeare was married at Temple Grafton, Luddington, Billesley, and elsewhere, but no shadow of evidence can be adduced for any of these places. All we know is that on November 28th, 1582, Fulke Sandells and John Richardson, farmers, of Stratford, who had been respectively one of the “supervisors” and one of the witnesses of Richard Hathaway’s will, went to Worcester and there entered into a “Bond in £40 against Impediments, to defend and save harmless the right reverend father in God, John, Lord Bushop of Worcester” from any complaint or process that might by any possibility arise out of his licensing the marriage with only once asking the banns. These two bondsmen declared that “William Shagspere, one thone partie and Anne Hathaway of Stratford” (Shottery was and is a hamlet in the parish of Stratford-on-Avon) “in the dioces of Worcester, maiden, may lawfully solemnize marriage together.” This document, discovered in the Worcester Registry in 1836, is sufficiently clear and explicit; but a complication is introduced by a license issued the day before by the Bishop for a marriage “inter Wm. Shaxpere et Anna Whateley de Temple Grafton.” It has been suggested that, as there were Whateleys living in the neighbourhood, and that as there were numerous Shakespeares also, with many Williams among them, this was quite another couple, while others contend that “Whateley” was a mistake of one of the clerks employed in the Bishop’s registry, and that the name of Temple Grafton as “place of residence” of the bride was a further mistake, that being the place intended for the ceremony. In any case, the point is of minor interest for the registers of Temple Grafton do not go back to that date, and the fabric of the church itself is quite new. We do not know, therefore, where Shakespeare was married, nor when; and can but assume that the wedding took place shortly after the bond was signed.

Six months later, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter was born, for we see in the register of baptisms in Holy Trinity church, Stratford, the entry:—

“1583, May 26th, Susanna, daughter to William Shakespere.”

The reason for the hurried visit of the two farmers to Worcester, to hasten on the marriage with but one “asking” in church now becomes evident. They were friends of the late Richard Hathaway, and were determined that young Shakespeare should not get out of marrying the girl he had—wronged, shall we say? Well, no. There have been many moralists excessively shocked at this pre-nuptial intimacy, and they assert that Shakespeare seduced Anne Hathaway.

But young men of just over eighteen years of age do not, I think, beguile young women nearly eight years older. Anne probably seduced him; for woman is more frequently the huntress and the chooser, and man is a very helpless creature before her wiles.

The extravagances of the Baconians may well be illustrated here, for although the subject of Shakespeare’s marriage has no bearing upon the famous cryptogram and the authorship of the plays, Donnelly spreads himself generously all over Shakespeare’s life, and lightheartedly settles for us the mystery of the bond re the marriage of Anne Hathaway and the license to marry Anne Whateley by suggesting that both names are correct and refer to the same persons. He says Anne Hathaway married a Whateley and that it was as a widow she married William Shakespeare, her maiden name being given in the bond by mistake! The sheer absurdity of this is obvious when we consider that if Mr. Donnelly is right, then the bondsmen made the yet grosser error of describing the widow as a “maiden.” She was actually at that time neither wife, maid nor widow.

Again, Richard Hathaway the father made his will in September 1581, leaving (inter alia) a bequest to Anne “to be paide unto her at the daie of her marriage.” She was a single young woman then, and yet according to the Donnellian view she was already, fifteen months later, a widow, again about to be married.

Apologists for this hasty marriage, jealous for the reputation of Shakespeare, are keen to find an excuse in the supposition that he was a Roman Catholic and that he was already married secretly, probably in the room in the roof of Shottery Manor House, which is supposed to have been used at this period as a place of secret worship. But there is no basis for forming any theory as to Shakespeare’s religious convictions. A yet more favourite assumption is that Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway went through the ceremony of “hand-fasting,” a formal betrothal which, although not a complete marriage and not carrying with it the privileges of marriage was a bar to either of the parties marrying another. Jack was thus made sure of his Jill; and, perhaps even more important, Jill was certain of her Jack. But if this ceremony had taken place, there would have been no necessity for that hasty journey of those two friends of the Hathaways to Worcester.

Nothing is known of the attitude of Shakespeare’s parents towards the marriage, nor has any one ever suggested how he supported himself, his wife and family in the years before he left Stratford for London. At the close of January 1585, his twin son and daughter, Hamnet and Judith were born, and they were baptized at Stratford church on February 2nd. Whether he assisted his father in his business of glover, or helped on his farm, or whether he became assistant master at the Grammar School, as sometimes suggested, is mere matter for speculation. John Aubrey, picking up gossip at Stratford, writes—

“Mr. William Shakespear was borne at Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwick. His father was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s trade, but when he kill’d a calfe he would doe it in a high style, and make a speech.”

That may or may not be true, but it looks as though William had, about this impressionable age, become stage-struck. He had had numerous opportunities of seeing the players, for his father had in his more prosperous days been a patron of the strolling companies, both as a private individual and as a member of the town council. In 1569 two such troupes, who called themselves the “Queen’s servants,” and “servants of the Earl of Warwick,” gave performances before the corporation and were paid out of the public monies; a forecast of the municipal theatre! And no doubt John Shakespeare, together with many other Stratford people, went over to Kenilworth during the magnificent pageants given there by Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1575, in honour of Queen Elizabeth; taking with him his little boy, then eleven years of age. Thus would the foundations of an ambition be laid.

At this time, 1585, John Shakespeare’s affairs, from whatever cause, were under a cloud. They had been declining since 1578, when he had been obliged to mortgage some of the property that had been his wife’s, and now he was deprived of his alderman’s gown. William about this time, whether in 1585 or 1587 is uncertain, left Stratford for London, whither some of his boyhood’s friends had already preceded him, among them Richard Field.

Stratford at this time was certainly no place for William, if he wished to emulate Dr. Samuel Smiles’ worthies and conform to the gospel of getting on in the world, the most popular gospel ever preached. In 1587, Nicholas Lane, one of his father’s creditors, sought to distrain upon John Shakespeare’s goods, but the sheriff’s officers returned the doleful tale of “no effects,” and so he had his trouble for nothing. It is, however, curious that even when reduced to his last straits, John Shakespeare never sold his property, the house in which he lived and carried on business, in Henley Street.

In addition to the discredit attaching to being thus one of the Shakespeares who had come down in the world, William, according to the very old, strong and persistent tradition, was at this time showing a very rackety disposition. He consorted with the wilder young men of the town and went on drinking bouts with them. Sometimes, with them, he raided the neighbouring parks and killed the deer and poached other game; and the old tradition hints that on these occasions the others made good their escape and Shakespeare was generally caught. Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, who was the chief sufferer from the exploits of these youths, is said to have had Shakespeare whipped, imprisoned and fined for his part in them.

To London, therefore, William Shakespeare made his way. With what credentials, if any, did he go? He had friends in London, among them Richard Field, a schoolfellow, who in 1579 had gone thither, to become apprentice to a printer, and in 1587, about this time when Shakespeare left home, had set up in business for himself and become a member of the Stationers’ Company. Shakespeare may quite reasonably have sought his help or advice; and certainly Field six years later published Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, the foremost literary and dramatic patron of the age, from whose friendship and powerful aid all intellectual aspirants hoped much.

It is quite likely that Shakespeare left Stratford with a company of travelling actors, and reaching town with them, gradually drifted into regular employment at one of the only two London theatres that then existed, “The Theatre” and the “Curtain” both in Shoreditch.

It is of some interest to speculate upon the manner in which Shakespeare journeyed to London, and the way he went. Was he obliged to walk it, in the traditional manner of the poor countryman seeking his fortune in the great metropolis? Or did he make the journey by the carrier’s cart? There are two principal roads by which he may have gone; by Newbold-on-Stour, Long Compton, Chapel House, and Woodstock to Oxford, Beaconsfield and through High Wycombe and Uxbridge, 95 miles; or he might have chosen to go by Ettington, Pillerton Priors, Sunrising Hill, Wroxton and Banbury, through Aynho, Bicester, Aylesbury, Tring and Watford to London, 92¾ miles. Such an one as he would probably first go to London by way of Oxford, for, like Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure,” he would doubtless think it “a city of light.” There are traditions at Oxford of Shakespeare’s staying at the “Crown” inn in the Cornmarket in after years. Sometimes he would doubtless go by the Banbury and Bicester route: and along it, at the village of Grendon Underwood, to the left of the road between Bicester and Aylesbury, as you journey towards London, there still linger very precise traditions of Shakespeare having stayed at what was formerly the “Old Ship” inn.

Grendon Underwood, or “under Bernwode” as it is styled in old records, appears in an old rhyme as—

“The dirtiest town that ever stood,”

but it was never a town, and, whatever may once have been its condition, it is no longer dirty.

“Shakespeare Farm,” formerly the “Ship” Inn, Grendon Underwood

It is not at first sight easily to be understood why Shakespeare, or any other traveller of that age journeying the long straight stretch of the old Roman road, the Akeman Street, between Bicester and Aylesbury, should want to go a mile and a quarter out of his way for the purpose of visiting this place, but that they did so is sufficiently proved by the comparative importance of the house that was until about a hundred and twelve years ago the “Old Ship” and is now known as “Shakespeare Farm.” It is clearly too large ever to have been built for an ordinary village inn, and is said to have formerly been even larger. If, however, we refer to old maps of the district, it will he found that, for some unexplained reason, the ancient forthright Roman road had gone out of use, and that instead of proceeding direct, along the Akeman Street, the wayfarers of old went a circuitous course, through Grendon Underwood. When this deviation took place does not appear; but it was obviously one of long standing. The first available map showing the roads of the district is that by Emanuel Bowen, 1756, in which the Akeman Street is not shown; the only road given being that which winds through Grendon. The next map to be issued—that by Thomas Jeffreys, 1788—gives the Akeman Street, running direct, between point and point, and avoiding Grendon, as it does now. That was the great era of turnpike-acts, providing for the repair and restoration of old roads, and the making of new; and this was one of the many highways then restored. The “Old Ship” inn, at Grendon Underwood, at which Shakespeare and many generations of travellers had halted, at once declined with the making of the direct road, and soon retired into private life.

The Shakespeare tradition comes down to us through John Aubrey, who, writing in 1680, says—

“The humour of the constable, in Midsomer-night’s Dreame, [21] he happened to take at Grendon, in Bucks—I thinke it was Midsomer night that he happened to lye there—which is the roade from London to Stratford, and there was living that constable about 1642, when I first came to Oxon.”

The village constable referred to was well known to one Josias Howe, son of the rector, born at Grendon, March 29th, 1612, died August 28th, 1701, who told Aubrey the story at Oxford, in 1642.

The lofty gabled red brick and timber end of Shakespeare Farm, illustrated here, is the earlier part of the building, although the whole of it is probably as old as Shakespeare’s time. That earlier wing, the part to which tradition points, is not now occupied, and is, in fact, in a very dilapidated condition, occasional floorboards, and even some of the stairs, being missing. Where the wearied guests of long ago rested, broody hens are set by the careful farmer’s wife on their clutches of eggs. There is little interesting in the architectural way in these dark and deserted rooms, but the flat, pierced, wooden banisters of the staircase are genuinely old and quaint.


Table of Contents

Continued decline in the affairs of John Shakespeare—William Shakespeare’s success in London—Death of Hamnet, William Shakespeare’s only son—Shakespeare buys New Place—He retires to Stratford—Writes his last play, The Tempest—His death.

That Shakespeare left his wife and family at home at Stratford-on-Avon every one takes for granted. He “deserted his family,” says a rabid Baconian, who elsewhere complains of the lack of evidence to support believers in the dramatist; forgetting that there is no evidence for this “desertion” story; only one of those many blanks in the life of this elusive man, by which it would appear that while he was reaching fame and making money in London as a playwright and an actor, he held no communication with his kith and kin. There remains no local record of William Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon between the year 1587, when he joined with his father in mortgaging the property at Asbies, Wilmcote, which had been his mother’s marriage portion, until 1596, when the register of the death of Hamnet, his only son, occurs at Stratford church, on August 11th. But this is sheer negative evidence of his not having visited his native town for over ten years, and is on a par with the famous Baconian argument that because no scrap of Shakespeare’s handwriting, except six almost illegible signatures, has survived, therefore he cannot have written the plays still attributed to him.

Meanwhile, his father’s affairs steadily grew worse, and in 1592 he was returned as a “recusant” by the commissioners who visited the town for the purpose of fining the statutable fine of £20 all those who had not attended church for one month. John Shakespeare’s recusancy has been unwarrantably assumed to be due to Roman Catholic obstinacy; but the fine was remitted because it was shown that he was afraid to go to church “for processe of debt”; which, together with the infirmities of age, or sickness, was a lawful excuse.

Shakespeare’s success in London as an actor, a reviser and editor of old and out-of-date plays, as manager, theatre-proprietor and playwright, is due to that sprack-witted capacity for excelling in almost any chosen field of intellectual activity with which a born genius is gifted. The saying that “genius is a capacity for taking pains” is a dull, plodding man’s definition. Genius will very often fling away the rewards of its powers through just this lack of staying power, and no plodding pains will supply that intuitive knowledge, that instant perception, which is what we call genius.

It was the psychological moment for such an one as Shakespeare to come to London. The drama had future before it: the intellectual receptivity of the Renascence permeated all classes, and the country was prosperous and growing luxurious. Playwrights were numerous, but as yet their productions had not reached a high level, excepting those of Marlowe, to whose inspiration Shakespeare at first owed much. If Shakespeare lived in these times he would be called a shameless plagiarist, for he went to other authors for his plots—as Chaucer had done with his Canterbury Tales, two hundred years earlier, and as all others had done in between. Not a man of them would escape the charge; but what Shakespeare took of plot-construction and of dialogue he transmuted from the dull and soulless lines we could not endure to read to-day, into a clear fount of wit, wisdom and literary beauty.

Shakespeare’s career of playwright began as a hack writer and cobbler of existing plays. As an actor his technical knowledge of the requirements of the stage rendered his help invaluable to managers, and the conditions of that time gave no remedy to any author whose plays were thus altered. It may be supposed from lack of evidence to the contrary, that most other dramatic authors submitted to this treatment in silence; perhaps because they had all been employed, at some time or other in the same way. But one man seems to have bitterly resented a mere actor presuming to call himself an author. This was Robert Greene, who died Sept. 3rd, 1592, after a long career of play-writing and pamphleteering. He died a disappointed man, and wrote a farewell tract, published after his death, which includes a warning to his fellow-authors and an undoubted attack upon Shakespeare, under the thin disguise of “Shake-scene.”

It is to be considered that Shakespeare had by this time been five years in London; that he had proved himself singularly adaptable, and had finally, on March 3rd, 1592, attained his first popular success, in the production at the newly-opened “Rose Theatre” on Bankside, Southwark (third London playhouse, opened February 19th, 1592), of Henry the Sixth. It was a veritable triumph. The author played in his own piece, and the other dramatists looked on in dismay. Jealousy does not seem to have followed Shakespeare’s good fortune, and the numerous references to him as poet and playwright by others are kindly and fully recognise his superiority. Only Greene’s posthumous work exists to show how one resented it. The tract has the singular title of “A Groats-Worth of Wit bought with a Million of Repentance.” Incidentally it warns brother-dramatists against “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a players hide supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes factotum is, in his ovine conceite, the only Shake-scene in a countrie.”

The identification of this crow in borrowed plumage, this “Shake-scene,” is completed by the line, “O tiger’s heart, wrapp’d in a woman’s hide,” which is a quotation from the Third Part of Henry the Sixth, where the Duke of York addresses Queen Margaret; while the term “Johannes factotum,” i.e. “Johnny Do-everything,” is a sneer at Shakespeare’s adaptability and many-sided activities.

The merits of Shakespeare as an actor are uncertain. Greene seems to imply that he was of the ranting, bellowing type who tore a passion to tatters and split the ears of the groundlings. Rowe, who wrote of him in 1709 says: “The top of his performance (as an actor) was the Ghost in his own Hamlet”; not an exacting part; other traditions say Adam in As You Like It, an even less important character, was his favourite; but the suggestion we love the better to believe is that his best part was the cynical, melancholy, philosophic Jaques. Donnelly, chief of the Bacon heretics, has in his Great Cryptogram, a weird story of how Bacon wrote the part of Falstaff for Shakespeare, to fit his great greasy stomach. He knew Shakespeare could not act, and so provided a part in which no acting should be required; turning Shakespeare’s natural disabilities to account, so that, if the audience could not laugh with him in his acting, they should laugh at him and dissolve into merriment at the clumsy antics of so fat a man!